Mary Josephine : Labouring behind the scenes

 Behind every election campaign are the many volunteers who work tirelessly and selflessly, gratified with just the hope of seeing their candidate raised to the winner’s podium. Mary Josephine, who has served in DAP’s general election campaigns since 1974, knows the joys and pains on that well-worn path. She shares with the Rocket the experiences and challenges of election campaining and the need for the public to get involved.

Can you give us an introduction about yourself?

I was born and bred in Seremban. As you can see from my name, I am of mixed parentage. My father is a Punjabi while my mother is a Eurasian. Growing up in a multi-racial environment I learned to speak many languages, Portuguese being one of the more unusual ones.

As I am married to a Chinese, I also managed to pick up some Chinese dialects such as Hainanese and Hakka. The Seremban Chinese constituents here regularly converse with me in Cantonese.

I am a mother of three children and a proud grandmother of seven grandchildren.

After completing my basic education here in Seremban, I studied to become a State Registered Nurse (SRN) in the UK in the 1970s. My nursing background has helped me understand the importance of serving people. Not long after I returned from the UK, I began to work as a dispensary nurse with Dr Chen Man Hin.

What motivated you to join politics?

As I started working with Dr Chen in 1973, I saw his full-hearted involvement in politics and DAP. His actions and life spoke of the discipline and principles of the party, which attracted me to it. His steadfast belief in the struggle and of what DAP stood for impacted me.

He would have a political secretary stationed in his medical practice, helping him attend to the constituents’ complaints while he attended to the patients in the next room. During this period DAP leaders from throughout the country such as Lim Kit Siang, P. Patto, Karpal Singh, Chian Heng Kai and many others would regularly come and meet Dr Chen in Seremban to discuss party matters and strategies.

There was an unspoken sense of camaraderie and presence of team spirit amongst these DAP comrades, that they were fighting for a cause bigger than themselves. It was not about their personal glory. They were fighting for justice and fairness for Malaysia. I knew in my heart this was the party to join. And that was how it all started for me in this political journey.

I slowly got involved in helping Dr Chen’s political work. I started helping with DAP election work in 1974. I helped out at political briefings, polling and counting observation work. By 1978 I assumed the task of being an election agent, starting with the Sungei Ujong state assembly seat contest. Since then, I have being an election agent for Negeri Sembilan (NS) DAP in every general election (GE).

How has the political arena evolved through the years from when you first started in politics?

In the early days, DAP was not well funded to run its elections campaigns. Many of us had to do the political work on our own; there weren’t any pre-election briefings that we have today for the campaigning teams. The volunteer workforce was not big then; the people’s awareness of election preparation work was very low.

Accompanying candidate Yap for Dudong DUN in the Sarawak state election

In logistics and communication, it was a vastly different playing field then. Today we have the internet, handphones, Twitter and other communication tools to transmit the latest information on election results and happenings.

In the 1970s, communication amenities were a daunting challenge. Telephones were a luxury for many people then. As the vote-counting was usually done in a common counting centre, our motorcyclists and sometimes bicyclists had to follow the ballot boxes being transported to the counting centre to ensure it arrive safely. So our speed of communication depended on our cyclist leg muscles, and what he ate the night before! (laughs)

Through the years what were the best and worst moments in politics for you?

In the 1990s, NS DAP went through a bad patch. After the 1995 GE, we lost two state assemblymen (ADUN) who crossed over to the ruling party. In the years when we did not have any elected representatives at all, those were trying times for us. Recruitment figures were waning. Many branches were put to the test. The atmosphere was pretty negative for us at that time.

We were literally scraping the bottom of the barrel. Fortunately for us, the grassroot members and branches stuck with us through those lean years. They gave us moral and physical support to sustain us through; we knew we could not let them down. We had to do it for the people.

In the 2004 GE, we worked hard for the campaign. We had a new and credible candidate for the Lobak state seat in Anthony Loke; our team’s spirits rose. On election night, I was at the state DAP building. As the results came in, I knew we had the seat in hand. Suddenly I heard footsteps running up the stairs crying “Josephine! Josephine! We won! We won!” There he was, my jubilant candidate Anthony breaking the news to us. I was overcome with tears recalling how hard we worked to win that election after a long fruitless patch for us.

With that victory it laid the foundation for a new NS DAP. A new generation of leaders rose up to give us the impetus to move forward with new ideas and energy. The receptiveness of the old members toward their leadership helped very much in this area. The NS DAP’s big victory in the 2008 GE was a coronation of that rejuvenation effort.

Did you ever consider being a candidate for elections?

In the 1980s and 1990s, Dr Chen approached me several times to be a candidate. I was reluctant. I realised that being a politician is a 24/7 job and I would have to give 110 percent commitment to politics. I love politics, but above all I love my family. I could not bring myself to leave my children behind.

Besides, I had a passion for the mundane task of election preparation which many people had no interest in. Only one person can fill the role of candidate. But for him or her to win, it takes a whole team of election workers and volunteers to push the cart. I was happy to fill and train the people to fill those roles. I was contented to be behind the scenes.

Also I enjoy working and guiding the younger leaders in this political path. Even though I never got to be candidate, I saw my dreams fulfilled in Anthony’s success as a candidate and elected representative. After his 2004 Lobak state seat victory, I told myself I would walk with him all the way and help him be the next Member of Parliament (MP). I saw in him someone who could bring NS DAP to greater heights.

Can you tell about your work as an election preparation work coordinator? What do you basically do?

 One of the roles that I often take up is that of an election agent. It is one of the most important roles in any election campaign. This person represents the candidate. His designation allows him to go anywhere in the nomination and vote counting centres on nomination and polling days as well as getting information from and working with the police and Election Commission (EC).

His other tasks are equally important: the Election Agent has to ensure that the team recruits enough polling and counting agents as well as sort out their lodging, food, and transport arrangements. The Election Agent also ensures that all election related forms and documents are in order, and oversees the setting up of banners and buntings in strategic places and also other miscellaneous tasks.

He is what I would describe as the “fill-in-the-blanks” agent. He needs to be focused in his responsibility; he shouldn’t be driving the candidate around, doing walkabouts or listening to ceramahs. That is why in almost every election I have been an EA I have never had the opportunity to attend any ceramahs.

Please elaborate about your role as a Polling and Counting Agent (PACA) trainer? Who do you attend to?

Generally in any GE or by-elections contested by DAP, I am involved in the campaign to train the PACAs for DAP. PACAs are one of the most important parts of every election campaign. They are literally in the front line of the polling process and play a vital role to determine fair and impartial voting.

Is this a stressful and intimidating job?

I would say it depends on how much you want to give of yourself for the party’s sake. This is a way of expressing your support for the party. We have to look at it from the positive side and understand the significance of the role.

I often tell the PACAs if they have put in their best efforts, it is good enough for me. Their very presence there in the polling centre is already half the battle won.

It would only become a stressful and intimidating task when you are not aware of and prepared for the responsibilities of being a PACA. Besides, we only do it once every four or five years.

You were helping DAP in the Sarawak state elections recently. Can you tell us about some of the voting irregularities that took place?

Our PACAs in Sibu managed to uncover several discrepancies in postal voting. The first case concerns phantom voting. In that incident, one of our PACAs was able to identify a voter who clearly didn’t look the age stated in the IC. When our PACA objected and requested to check the voter’s IC, he kicked up a fuss and bolted for the door.

The second case was about selling of postal voters. I got wind there was rampant vote selling in Wisma Sanyan, where the postal voting was held. An ambush was planned. I managed to arrange for my PACA to sneak up on one of the transactions as it took place. The alleged vote buyer was caught handing out cash to the voter and holding on to her ballot paper. The incident was captured on video and reported by the media. The suspected vote buyer was one of the PACAs for another party.

Tell us about some of the anecdotes and interesting experiences as a PACA that you have witnessed in the past.

I have had some PACAs coming in drunk and being stopped from entering the polling station by the election officer. Certain political parties literally threw week-long drinking parties for the whole village to ensure the villagers couldn’t turn up to vote on polling day. Naturally, some of the PACAs were affected.

In another incident, a colleague of mine who was at the counting centre got frustrated with the counting results and almost overturned the counting tables as a result. We were shocked and had to restrain him. On hindsight we should have allowed him to do it as we were losing the vote count (laughs)!

What would you tell the public about volunteering for election preparation work? How can the people help?

Many people are angry and frustrated with what is happening to this country and rightly so. We want change, but unless we are willing to work for it, it would remain just well wishes. It is easy to migrate overseas for those who can afford it, but Malaysia is our inheritance together. Malaysia is what we make it out to be, it depends on us to change and mould it. We have a duty to ensure our country succeeds; we owe it to our children to do that.

If you have the time, volunteer and help out in election campaigns and preparation. Becoming a PACA is one of the more direct and practical ways to express your support for these efforts.

In the past, some of the nationally-known DAP leaders have lost in elections due to the lack of honest and dedicated PACAs. The need for PACAs will always be there, especially in the uneven playing field that DAP and Pakatan Rakyat have to fight in.

Join us and give us your support; be a part of a change that will create history for you and your future generation. Be involved. -The Rocket